“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the 26-year-old Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his stirring letter about the struggle for artistic purpose and recognition. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” It is a hollowing feeling every artist experiences at one point or another, this dispiriting mismatch between the ferocity of one’s inner fire and the cold, blind eye of the outside world.
In the same era, another artist of towering genius and paltry recognition articulated this sentiment, as well as its heartening antidote, in a letter to the love of his life.
Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) met and fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett in the land of verse. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too,” he wrote to the stranger who had enchanted him with her 1844 poetry collection. He was an obscure poet six years her junior and this was the beginning of a most improbable courtship, recounted in Figuring, that would soon become one of the grandest, most beautiful true love stories in the common record.
“You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert in their early epistolary romance, collected in the almost unbearably beautiful Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook). What harmonized their differences and contradictions was literature — the shared passion for it, the intellectual and creative bond around it, the mutual admiration of each other’s artistic gift, particularly transformative for Robert: Elizabeth’s confidence in his talent buoyed him when criticism and indifference sank his spirit as he struggled for recognition.
In a letter penned at the dawn of their courtship, Elizabeth probes his orientation to criticism and creative purpose:
I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.
Aware of her own creative courage and defiance of convention, the 33-year-old Robert responds:
You inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism”… I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and with the belief that, after every drawback and shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered — that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me.
A decade before Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” Browning reflects on his own poems, dismissed and misunderstood by critics, and the fiery animating force behind them:
These scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power, which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea, wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick — for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard — (this head of mine knows better) — but the work has been inside, and not when at stated times I held up my light to you — and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you (and nobody else), even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me.
In a sentiment even more countercultural today, as many artists sacrifice creative authenticity at the alter of catering — to existing tastes, to lucrative “markets,” to the guarantees of convention and their own past proven successes — Elizabeth condemns Tennyson, perhaps the most “successful” poet in the English language at the time and a writer she did admire, for his readiness in catering to the likes and dislikes of critics and tastemakers rather than composing from a place of authentic creative vision. A century before James Baldwin considered the artist’s struggle for integrity and Mark Rothko lamented that “while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done,” she writes:
That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.
Emboldened by her insistence on authenticity over approval, Robert concurs:
Tennyson reads the Quarterly and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world — out goes this, in goes that, all is changed and ranged. Oh me!
Robert Browning would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential poets our civilization has produced, much thanks to Elizabeth’s encouragement. Although today he is the better known of the two Brownings — a common selective erasure reflective of history’s worship of the Y chromosome — he spent most of his career in her shadow, always ungrudgingly, always in admiration. As Elizabeth rose to celebrity, Robert’s pride in her work was so great that he sublimated his own ego, readily recounting a period during which he could get publishers interested in his own work only if he also sent them something of his wife’s. A decade into their love, he published Men and Women — a two-volume collection of his poems, for which both Brownings had high hopes. It fell on unenchanted ears, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Several months later, Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse, a sensation best described today as viral — stationed Elizabeth atop a new stratum of celebrity. Robert was jubilant. “I am surprised, I own, at the amount of success,” a disbelieving Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law. “Golden-hearted Robert is in ecstasies about it — far more than if it all related to a book of his own.” Perhaps she was thinking of Robert’s obscurity and the public’s painful indifference to his books when she had her protagonist proclaim:
We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth —
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.
Complement this fragment of the altogether magnificent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with the couple’s contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn on artistic integrity and Walt Whitman on keeping criticism from sinking your creative confidence, then revisit Elizabeth Barrett Browning — an artist who persevered through an inordinate share of suffering — on what makes life worth living and happiness as a moral obligation.